Smooth Alder – March Wildflower of the Month

Smooth AlderSmooth Alder (Alnus serrulata) is a multi-stemmed small tree or large shrub with shiny gray-brown bark that reaches 15 feet tall.  Both male and female flowering structures persist through the winter.  In winter, smooth alder can be recognized instantly by two reproductive structures.  The small cone-like female catkins are from the female flower of the previous year while the yet-unopened catkins are of the coming year.  The future “cones” that will be pollinated by the catkins are themselves still tiny in winter.

In the spring the male flowers are yellow-brown drooping catkins. Alders are wind-pollinated, and release pollen before the leaves emerge. Dark green leaves have wedge-shaped bases and leaf edges are usually finely toothed.  The glossy summer foliage becomes yellow and tinged with red in the fall.  The reddish buds grow from the twig on short stalks, another identifying feature in the winter, since the buds are not stalked in most trees and shrubs.

Alders are most important as pioneer species that stabilize and fertilize barren areas such as strip mines, clearcuts, and riverbanks.  These small trees fix nitrogen from the air in a symbiotic relationship with bacteria in the root system, which nourishes the tree.  As alder leaves fall, the nitrogen-rich litter quickly fertilizes barren ground.   Many conifers have been shown to grow better in areas where alders have preceded them, so alders are often planted as the first step in reforestation.

The only alder native in southeastern United States, smooth alder grows in disturbed and wet areas, commonly found at the edge of water.  This shrub or small tree is common in eastern and central U.S. and in most counties across Virginia.

Inner bark can be ground into a crude flour in an emergency.  Deer will eat the twigs, but it is not a favorite food.

By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photo:  Smooth alder (Alnus serrulata) taken by Helen Hamilton

Catbrier – February 2018 Wildflower of the Month

Saw Greenbrier Smilax bona-nox at York River State Park, VA Greenbrier, Catbrier, Sawbrier, Bullbrier, Carrion-flower – members of this genus have many common names, none of them conveying that of a friendly plant. Rather, the leaves of many species have strong prickles, and the stems have thorns to hook onto branches of other plants. New homeowners of old farms and less-than-new houses often find part of the property covered with dense impenetrable thickets of the vine, viewed by some as “razor wire.”

While clumps of these plants are daunting to gardeners, all this greenery is important food and shelter for wildlife. Black Bear eat the berries and shoots, deer graze on new growths, and birds enjoy the berries, passing the seeds along to another site. Native Americans found many uses, culinary and medicinal, for species found here in the Coastal Plain.

Common Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) was described by Linnaeus, from plants collected by colonial botanists and sent to Europe. Also known as Sawtooth Greenbriar, Horsebrier, and Round Leaf Greenbrier, this is not a plant loved by gardeners. This vine grows all over natural wooded areas, draping stems from shrub to shrub – it’s easy to get caught in a group of bending and sprawling shoots, the thorns catching on smooth clothing and impossible to remove from woolen sweaters.

Smilax rotundifolia berriesEasy to recognize, Common Greenbrier has rounded leaves that are bright green on both sides, and strong parallel veins. While these leaves often persist over the winter, most species are deciduous. Tiny yellowish-green flowers (male and female on different vines) bloom for two weeks in April or May, followed by clusters of blue-black berries from September through November. Among the many birds that feed on the berries are Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird and White-throated Sparrow.

Catbrier (Smilax bona-nox) is distinctive for the leathery, triangular leaves with a broad lobe on each side, presenting an “eared” appearance. This is a woody vine that climbs and winds with tendrils up trees, over shrubbery and along the ground, creating thick brambles. The smooth, green stems grow to 20 feet long, and are covered with stout, sharp prickles that make passage very difficult. Leaves are green beneath, often mottled with white. The leaf edges are often bristly and when smooth, a raised, wire-like vein runs along the margin.

In late spring, small, inconspicuous flowers appear in clusters in the axils of the leaves, male and female on different plants.  Following the flowering period, clusters of blue fruits are very attractive to wild turkeys, squirrels and many species of songbirds during the winter.  White-tailed deer will browse the foliage, not bothered by the thorns on the lower parts of the plant.  The seeds are dispersed by animals and can be carried long distances by birds.

Native Americans and colonists cooked the shoots of greenbriers and added young leaves and tendrils to salads, well into summer. The roots form a large tuber similar to a sweet potato that served many needs. Dried, pounded to a powder, and mixed with water, the final paste was used to thicken soups, to make jelly, and to treat minor aches and pains. Francis Peyer Porcher, an American botanist, wrote that the American Indians as well as soldiers during the Civil War fermented the Greenbriar tuber into a “home brew” adding sassafras for flavor to enlighten their spirits. The leaves of the Greenbriar can be used as a dressing for cuts and burns.

By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photos:  Catbrier (Smilax bona-nox) taken by Helen Hamilton
Common Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) taken by Seig Kopinitz

Persimmon – November 2017 Wildflower of the Month

Persimmon PMPersimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a beautiful native tree that produces luscious fruit and yellow, red or purple leaves in the fall. With its dark-colored bark, cut into little blocks, Persimmon is easy to recognize while walking woodland trails. Flowering Dogwood also has blocky bark, but the branches form twigs that are opposite each other – Persimmon has alternate branching. And no one would mistake the leaves and fruits of Dogwood for that of Persimmon.

Persimmon leaves are shiny, dark green in spring, turning vivid yellow, red, and purple in the fall, usually with black spots. The leaves can be mistaken for those of other nearby trees, but the edges are smooth, without teeth, and they arranged alternately on the stems. A medium-sized tree with a somewhat irregular shape, it thrives in full sun or part shade, and tolerates any kind of soil from low, swampy sites to upland dry woods.

Tiny white urn-shaped flowers appear from May through June, hidden among the leaves. Male and female flowers are on separate trees, and while female trees are necessary for fruit production, immature trees or those in poor growing conditions will have low fruit set. Unripe fruit is highly astringent due to tannins which have a drying effect on tissues. After a frost the fruit becomes soft, fleshy and delicious, with a custard-like flavor of mangoes and banana.

Cultivars of American Persimmon in the nursery trade modify the fruit qualities, fall leaf color and growth rate.  Seeds of an oriental persimmon reached this country in 1856, sent from Japan by Commodore Perry. Cultivars were collected in China and are now are widely distributed throughout the southern states.

The wood is hard, smooth and even-textured, resembling ebony that comes from relatives in the tropics, eg, Diospyros ebenum. The wood has been used commercially for golf club heads and textile shuttles. Fruits feed many birds and mammals, from songbirds to turkeys, dogs and deer, which help disperse the seeds.

Photo: Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) taken by Phillip Merritt
By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

Sourwood – December 2017 Wildflower of the Month

SourwoodSourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a rewarding tree in all seasons; in spring the tree is covered with lacy white fronds of flowers, suggesting its other name, “lily of the valley tree”.  Fall turns the leaves deep red and the fingers of white flowers become clusters of creamy fruits.

Many members of the heath family have small, white, bell-like flowers that are clustered mostly at ends of twigs.  Sourwood is the only full-size tree in the heath family with flowers and fruits of the heath type.  The sour-tasting leaves are narrow to egg-shaped with a line of hairs on the midvein on the underside.

Hardy to zones 5 to 9, sourwood prefers full to part sun in slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soils, but does well in dry soil. However, the root system is shallow, and it does not transplant well.  Sourwood tree trunks do not stand straight and tall, they always lean away from the vertical.  When the leaves are gone, these leaning trunks are good identification for sourwood.

This mid-sized tree (20-30 feet tall) ranges from New Jersey south to Florida and Louisiana, growing in rich woods.  It is found in all counties across Virginia except for those in northern Virginia.

With no major pests or diseases, this native tree is worth considering as a landscape element. The flowers attract bees and butterflies, and produce seeds for birds.  Sourwood honey can often be found in local food outlets.

Photo: Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) taken by Helen Hamilton
By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS

Black Walnut – January 2018 Wildflower of the Month

Black Walnut (1)Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is one of our most valuable and beautiful native trees.  Before extensive colonization Black Walnut was a dominant canopy species, reaching 150 feet or more in height. But clearing for agriculture, harvesting for export to Britain, and making railroad ties, log cabins and cabinets greatly reduced the species.

This tree is native to 32 states, more common in lower elevations and concentrated in eastern U.S.  In nature Black Walnut grows in hardwood forests on moist, well-drained soils. These trees are often found around old homesites where they were planted for their tall, stately growth and broad canopy for shade. The leaves are dark green, turning yellow in autumn, and when crushed, have a spicy scent. Small greenish catkins are the flowers that appear in April, as the leaves are beginning to unfurl.

The compound leaves have 9-21 long, pointed leaflets, with finely toothed margins. They look somewhat similar to the leaflets of the introduced Tree of Heaven Ailanthus altissima but those leaves are coarsely toothed with a small lip near the insertion. Black Walnut can be distinguished from hickories by its distinctive leaf scar that is notched with a U-shaped bundle scars in the middle, often described as a “monkey face.”

The wood is exceptionally beautiful with a darkly patterned grain, and is highly prized for furniture, veneers, interior finishing. Other parts of the tree have a variety of uses, especially the delicious nuts which are, unfortunately, covered with an extremely hard shell that is covered by another impossibly thick husk. The hulls will soften over time, and the nutmeats can be harvested by hand, with a chisel and hammer, or with commercial products. Black walnuts have higher concentrations of beneficial fatty acids and protein than the English walnut that is more commonly sold in stores.

All parts of Black Walnut produce the chemical juglone that inhibits metabolic activity in many plants. The chemical is produced in roots and dissolves out of the leaves during rains, washing down to the ground below. While some plants cannot tolerate exposure to juglone, many trees, shrubs and perennials can be grown nearby with no ill effects. According to Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home, the most sensitive plants are alien ornamentals, with no evolutionary experience with juglone. For a list of juglone-resistant plants, see “Landscaping and Gardening Around Walnuts and Other Juglone Producing Plants,” PennState Extension website,

The bark and leaves have been used medicinally, and have been especially useful treating skin diseases. The bark has been chewed to help with the pain of a toothache, and a bark infusion was taken as a laxative, among other uses. The chemical is highly toxic to many insect herbivores and can be a natural pesticide. Native Americans used the green hulls of the nuts as a fish poison.

Black Walnut, along with hickories, are excellent wildlife trees – their leaves host over 100 species of caterpillars and moths, important food source for birds. The nuts feed mice, voles, and squirrels over the winter, and these animals are food for larger ones, passing energy up the food pyramid. And since squirrels don’t always remember where they buried their nuts, sprouts of Black Walnut will appear in new habitats.

By Helen Hamilton, Past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photo: Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) taken by Helen Hamilton

Nature Camp Recipients

John Clayton VNPS 2017 Nature Camp scholarship recipients: Zoe Averett, Lisa Small, Nash McDowell, and South McDowell (seated). They attended the November chapter meeting where they spoke about their rewarding experiences at Nature Camp.

John Clayton VNPS 2017 Nature Camp scholarship recipients: Zoe Averett, Lisa Small, Nash McDowell, and South McDowell (seated). They attended the November chapter meeting where they spoke about their rewarding experiences at Nature Camp.

Woolgrass – October 2017 Wildflower of the Month

WoolgrassNot usually a first choice for gardens, Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) grows next to ponds, streambeds, and roadside ditches, where it forms colonies that hold soil and prevent erosion. In naturalized areas this plant looks great with late-blooming fall asters, goldenrods and native shrubs – it’s a nice choice for rain gardens and low moist spots.

Woolgrass spreads aggressively with creeping rhizomes, which makes it a good candidate for container gardening. This perennial sedge grows to 6 feet tall, usually in large clumps, with long leaves and large flowerheads. They start to bloom in July and by fall the 6-12 inch fruit clusters are red-brown and very fuzzy. The plant is dormant in winter, but the standing foliage provides much winter interest.

This is one of several important species of wetland plants that provide food and cover for waterfowl and other wildlife. The seeds are eaten by waterfowl, and the roots by muskrats and geese. This sedge is native to most counties of Virginia, ranging from eastern Texas to Newfoundland.

Plants in the genus Scirpus are known as bulrushes, and grow naturally throughout North America. All parts of the plant are edible, and have been used for medicines and household items. Flour can be made from the pollen, ground seeds, and dried rhizomes and the young shoots have been eaten as a raw salad or cooked vegetable. The tough stems have been made into baskets, mats, shelters, brooms, and the soft seedheads add comfort to mats and pillows.

By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photo: Woolgrass (Scirpus cyperinus) taken by Helen Hamilton in the Williamsburg Botanical
Garden in Freedom Park.

2018 Nature Camp Scholarships!

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Five local organizations are now accepting applications for scholarships for the Summer 2018 sessions of Nature Camp at Vesuvius, Virginia, in the George Washington National Forest. Applicants need only submit one application to be considered by these five organizations.
Nature Camp is a two-week, co-educational, academic camp that emphasizes education in natural history and environmental studies. It is intended for those seeking a science/nature experience. Campers attend class daily, maintain a notebook, complete written projects, and participate in outdoor activities.

Download the application below. And you can also print out and post flyers to spread the word!

2018 Flyer Nature Camp

2018 Joint Application

New York Ironweed – August 2017 Wildflower of the Month

Vernonia Skipper (1)A handsome plant, New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) can grow really tall, up to 10 feet, but the sturdy stems usually keep the plants upright during the blooming season, July through September.  Brilliant, deep purple flowers at the top of the plants are regularly visited by nectaring insects, especially the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and other large butterflies. Long, lance-shaped leaves have fine teeth all along the edges.

Occurring in nearly every county of Virginia, this native perennial occurs throughout the U.S. east Coast, in moist or wet areas of fields and stream banks. Preferring moist soil in full sun, it works well in a rain garden but will tolerate some dry periods.  This plant requires little care in the home garden and will grow in somewhat drier sites in a border or native meadow garden with sunflowers, asters, and blazing star.
Like Joe Pye Weed, Ironweed has no ray flowers.  The dense flower heads of composed only of disk flowers, where insects can gather much nectar in a short period of time.

The common name could refer to its tough stems, or the rusty colored older flowers and seeds. The genus was named for an English botanist who collected plants in Maryland in the late 1600s; noveboracensis means “of New York.”

By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photo: Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) taken by Phillip Merritt

Seashore Mallow – September 2017 Wildflower of the Month

Seashore Mallow DPSeashore Mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica) is a very showy plant with profuse display of pink and yellow flowers that bloom at the ends of stems or in leaf axils. Open during the day, the petals close at night.   The flower looks like hibiscus, but they are much smaller and a deep pink.  A single plant can have hundreds of 3-inch flowers, normally blooming July through October.  In wet summers, seed pods will form earlier.

As in other members of the Mallow Family, the stamens are fused into a yellow central column.  The gray-green leaves are egg-shaped, pointed, and usually with triangular lobes at the base.   Lower leaves are maple-like with 3-5 lobes.   The erect, branching stems are 1-3 feet tall.

Growing in full sun in brackish marshes, wet meadows, swamps and shores, Seashore Mallow occurs only in the Atlantic coastal and tidewater counties of Virginia.  Moderately salt tolerant, the plant prefers sand and soils with high acidity, but will tolerate clay habitats.   These plants prefer mucky soils, but will grow well in garden soils that are regularly irrigated, as in rain gardens. They work well in beds with sunflowers, grasses, and goldenrods.

With a long, tubular flower, Seashore Mallow attracts butterflies and hummingbirds to collect nectar. So characteristic of native coastal flora, our sister native plant chapter in South Hampton Roads selected Seashore Mallow as their floral logo. The genus was named for Vincenz Kostelezky, 1801-1887, a Bohemian botanist.

Seashore Mallow belongs to the Malvaceae, a family with most members in the American tropics. The European marsh mallow Althaea officinalis has a pasty root that was the original source of the candy “marshmallow.” But the most valuable member of the family is cotton (Gossypium).

By Helen Hamilton, past-president of the John Clayton Chapter, VNPS
Photo: Seashore Mallow (Kosteletzkya virginica) taken by Helen Hamilton